Strange Vistas

Writing about movies, anime, books, and media

Cora Tanetti's police file from The Sinner

The Sinner is an atypical murder mystery.

We know who killed young Frankie Belmont, as he goofed around with friends at a beach: it was Cora Tannetti, thirty-something mother, who on weekdays helps her husband and father-in-law run a home repair business. We know how: she stabbed him repeatedly, on the chest and neck, with a paring knife, exploding upon him like an angry mountain lion with no warning whatsoever.

Those two are indisputable. Not only Cora admits to it, but dozens of people saw her, including her husband and son.

What we don't know is why.

It's not that Cora isn't telling – she doesn't seem to know herself. She looks as shocked as everyone else by her actions, is eager to confess and declare herself guilty. Still, she can't speak to what possessed her to murder Frankie. She'd never met him before. None of Frankie's friends knew her. He was a doctor who used to play in a band; she was a mousey housewife and former waitress. They'd never crossed paths before.

She admits to it. She wants to pay for her crime and be done with it.

Detective Harry Ambrose, one of the two assigned to her case, thinks she is almost too eager. He takes a paternal liking to her, believes they are missing something. There could be some extenuating circumstances, some trauma, something that caused her to act this way. He wants to make sure they aren't overlooking anything before her arraignment. Her behavior is unjustified, strange. Nobody just up and does something like this, is his take.

So he's got his theories, and viewers do too. Part of the reason people watch murder mysteries is to see if they can figure out the solution before they hear the answer. That carries you through a couple of hours, but for an 8-episode series, you are going to need to have characters people want to spend time watching.

It can't be just Cora. Jessica Biel does a decent job, but Cora is a cipher, and as much a puzzle box as the reasons behind her actions. Her husband is a simple man, doing his job, buffeted by events. It's all on Bill Pullman's Harry Ambrose.

Most of Bill Pullman's recent characters come across like current-day selves of his Serpent and the Rainbow Dennis Alan. Dogged but damaged, survivors of terrible things, barely getting by and coping 30 years later. Ambrose is smart, with a work ethic that engulfs his personal life, but he is no Hercule Poirot. Pullman doesn't play him like a misunderstood genius fighting police apathy. Instead, he is hesitant, like a just-recovered alcoholic, unsure of himself and his standing in the group. He might be right, more often than not, yet his main hurdle is not the system's indifference but his inability to communicate.

Being right is not enough. You need to be able to make it clear to others and win them to your cause. Ambrose's stubborn I-know-better-ness doesn't help him, personally or professionally. The tension comes not only from if he'll find the pieces he needs, but if he'll be able to get others to even look at them.

Cora's actions are a tincture spreading across the community, staining, revealing cracks. Ambrose claws at these with his blackened fingernails, pries them apart, trying to find anything that can help Cora. Pieces drop out of almost everything he cracks open, but Ambrose (and the viewers) need to figure out if they belong to the right puzzle.

Would this be the one bit that would flip a woman from a quiet mother to a violent murderer? Why would this have started that rumbling in the back of her self, the hateful drone that she had kept down, chained, so that it wouldn't come out, and that even now, covered in blood, murder weapon in her hand, she doesn't dare look at?

The why is all that matters.

#thesinner #thriller #tvseries #billpullman #jessicabiel

Adam Driver, Scarlet Johansson, and Azhy Robertson on the Marriage Story poster

Gary Oldman was terrified of playing George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. When pushed to talk about it, he said it was for the same reason that the part almost drove Sir Alec Guinness to a breakdown: it had no artifice, no flashiness, nowhere an actor could hide.

That should be the only thing going through your mind when watching Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Noah Baumbach's harrowing Marriage Story. If Oldman was terrified of Smiley, he'd be paralyzed at the thought of Charlie and Nicole.

Anyone familiar with Baumbach's work (particularly The Squid and the Whale) should expect the endearing poster and positive title to be as related to the contents as Deadpool's Valentine's day ads were. Baumbach takes that assumption as his starting point, runs away with it, and vaults over any expectations of unpleasant, cringing moments you could have had.

No, this is not about the relationship, back when it worked. This is about how two people, having drifted apart, aiming to keep some distance, overcorrect and don't just push their former partner away, but punch and stab and maim the other every time they come close.

This is a couple whose stated wish is to resolve things in an amicable manner, without getting lawyers involved, who decide to go against their agreement and proceed to trample all over each other. They step, stomp, scream, mangle. We grimace and cringe and try to get out of the way.

And it's all on Driver and Johansson. Their parts as Charlie and Nicole allow no tics, no mannerisms, none of the easy outward markers that fit well in 10 second Oscar clips. They are just there, on screen, nothing but confused feelings swirling up and emotions lashing out, all frustration and resentment and pain.

It is still not the most uncomfortable relationship movie I've seen.

(Pipe down, In the Realm of the Senses fans).

It is a more straightforward relationship than that in Polanski's Bitter Moon, in a way. In Marriage Story, we know we enter at the point that enough threads have come undone, and our job is to watch the whole construction unravel. In Bitter Moon, we know from the start that things went south at some point, we just don't know when, and we have to keep waiting, watching the instability build, wondering if this is the nudge that will make the emotional card castle topple.

That does not make Marriage Story any easier to watch. There is a scene where things start uncomfortable, before getting tense, then increase in intensity, then keep running past the point you'd expect, a terrifying escalation, to horrendous extremes where you want to step in and beg them to stop, push each into separate corners, or wish that at least one of them would make it end by strangling and castrating the other, just to make it stop. But it doesn't, nowhere near as easily, not until they've gone well past the point they should, where Baumbach has made sure you are feeling as dejected and drained as they are.

All of it just the two of them, in a room, talking. With no artifice.

The supporting performances are impeccable as well, particularly Laura Dern as a carnivorous spider in red stilettos (with a personal agenda to boot). Everyone has you assigning blame. How much of this is the lawyers? How much her, given her own admissions of insecurity, her breaches of agreement, her apparent shallowness? How much him, given his actions, his dissatisfaction, his manufactured authenticity?

It doesn't matter. It's done. They've made their choices, paid their prices, and have to live with it.

Watching it, you breathe out. At least it's over.

#marriagestory #noahbaumbach #adamdriver #scarlettjohansson #drama

Giri/Haji title poster

Giri/Haji is the rarest of creatures: a bilingual slice of life crime thriller series, like Kazuo Ishiguro doing a cops and mobsters story.

A Japanese executive is murdered in London. In Tokyo, a stern-looking man is shot to death at a restaurant, while he was examining the murdered executive's photo, the restaurant destroyed by the killers' automatic weapons. Kenzo Mori, a Tokyo police detective, gets a late-night visit from yakuza boss Fukuhara, who tells him that the London killer is Kenzo's brother Yuto, presumed dead years ago. Kenzo is a good man, an honest policeman, and he doesn't take orders from gangsters. Kenzo's boss arrives and confirms Fukuhara's instructions: he needs to get on a plane to London, ostensibly to attend a Crime Scene Management course, but in reality to retrieve Yuto and stop a gang war.

Kenzo can't defy an order, and he convinces himself that Yuto has a better chance of coming back alive if it is Kenzo bringing him back. He travels to London, begins his search, aided and hindered by the local fauna, getting glimpses of his brother's wake. Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, their family and friends deal with the aftershocks.

The sins of the son reflect on the family. You often know when they are going astray. You always wonder if you should help, if you should let them fail now and face the consequences, deal with the sudden pain, or if all they need is one last push to clean up finally. You always wait too long. Things always get worse than you expected. You had expected that the impact for you could be harder the longer you wait, but you didn't mean for the blast radius to expand. Neither did Kenzo.

Takeshiro Hira plays Kenzo Mori as if he was a young Ken Watanabe in a Merchant Ivory police drama. Reserved, tentative, but determined to bring Yuto back. Yôsuke Kubozuka is Yuto, the brother he has to retrieve. The story revolves around the two as they move through London, and a trail of second-hand death blooms behind them. They both do a great job of conveying who Kenzo and Yuto are, their family dynamics, the stubbornness they share, the sins that bind them. They don't just carry the series by themselves, though.

Kelly Macdonald, who after a fiery introduction as Diane in Trainspotting seemed to have ended up typecast as the mousy Scottish girl, plays to both sides of her career here. Sarah, her constable, relegated to teaching after alienating her co-workers, is a reactor of righteousness wrapped in a shy schoolmarm, quickly exhausted but primed for mighty explosions.

On the other extreme, you have Charlie Creed-Miles playing Connor Abbot, a loud, unruly gangster. You want to lick Creed-Miles' scenery-chewing performance off your fingers, even if Abbot is mostly an amped-up, less self-aware version of his Peaky Blinders' Billie Kimber.

Then there is Will Sharpe playing Rodney Yamaguchi, the one who grounds us, the poor frog trying not to get trampled as the bulls fight in the mud around him, its poor impulse control keeping it too close to the fray. Rodney, son of a British and a Japanese, who could have been a two-note tragicomedic buffoon and walking metaphor. Sharpe's unsettled, frightened performance imbues Rodney with an inner life, aided by a script that insists on reminding us that even small actions can have outsized consequences.

Because everyone does a spectacular job with the parts they get, but it's Joe Barton script that deserves the most praise. It balances two countries and languages, a dozen characters, multiple parallel stories and motivations, and bundles it all up into eight coherent, thrilling episodes. And then, before it lets you go, it unleashes one of the most beautiful, lyrical, unexpectedly tense moments I have seen on a TV series, much less one with a neo-noir theme.

If only we could get more series like it: actual attempts at crafting the best possible story, not just another content hamster wheel to keep customers from canceling their streaming service.

It deserves to succeed, and I only hope its success ripples out.

#girihaji #joebarton #tvseries #bbc #takeshirohira #kellymacdonald #charliecreedmiles #willsharpe

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been out for about three years now. If you are interested in games at all, you've already read that it is yet another sensational outing by Nintendo. I had. I hadn't bought it, though, since I hadn't gotten a Switch because ... reasons. Too many games in my Playstation 4 queue for a few years, and then I was waiting for them to update the system. We've also had too many open-world games – I was a bit open-world'ed-out, to tell you the truth.

Ye of little faith, I can hear Satoru Iwata sigh.

Link fights a bokoblin on horseback

Even with three more years of open-world game development, with bigger teams trying new things on what are probably larger budgets, Breath of the Wild still impressed me. The gorgeous simplicity of its systems, its characters, how it embeds details into the environment – it packs many improvements over its competitors into an impressive experience.

It starts with you as Link, waking up in what looks like a tomb, from what you learn has been a long slumber. It all went wrong, a hundred years ago. We lost. The world has been living in the ruins of our last failure. Now we need to fix it.

So its genre is action-adventure, but that's not the core of the game. That's about discovery, exploration, the delight of figuring things out, finding new people, unearthing a new area. Its fun is in your interactions with not only the environment but the people you meet, with quests that are thrilling, adorable, humorous, poignant – often simultaneously.

Let's talk about the systems and world first.

A lesser game would need tutorials everywhere, and we would be talking about how well-spaced or info-dumpy those are. Breath rarely needs a tutorial for anything other than timing-related controls.

For instance, there is a cooking system. You can prepare ingredients by themselves, or combine them to make a recipe. The game doesn't explain how to right away, but neither does it stop you from trying. I kept picking apples. Their description read that the health effects would be more potent if cooked. I didn't find any cooking options, anywhere on the menu. But then I found a campfire and decided to throw some apples into it. The apples caught fire, briefly, then they turned into baked apples and me into a delighted, clapping six-year-old.

Its distinctive visual designs enhance the discovery factor, letting the game afford choices it otherwise couldn't. The game doesn't just set waypoints for your next objectives, or give you a route on the map. Instead, it gives you a description of a place, maybe a general direction, and lets you figure things out for yourself. You pick your route, whether by road or climbing or paragliding or any combination, finding new areas and places and secrets along the way.

For this to work, you need the environments to be distinctive and memorable, and by Hylia does it work. It is a vast open world, with areas that you can approach in (almost) any order. Yet, after you have been there for a while, it feels like you can remember every area of it.

“Ah, those jagged peaks. I remember them being by a river, with a cave behind the waterfall. That's probably ... here.”

“Hmm, the snowy, jagged peak. One of these three, up north.”

“Of course, the land dragon! That's the sculpture I saw two weeks ago!”

And what an expansive world it is. I am not sure how many hours I put into the game. Still, even near the end, when I was looking for a missing temple or exploring an area I didn't remember well, every so often I happened to make a left turn that I somehow had never made and run into a completely new vista.

That's an achievement by itself.

Then there are its people, cute, colorful, charming. You don't have to spend time on most of the side quests, grinding to make Link stronger, as they rarely add anything ingredients you can't just pick up by wandering. But you do get to interact with the people who are living in this world you are trying to save, get an idea of why your actions matter, at the individual scale.

In just one small town, I met:

A girl, trying to find her mom, who I played hide-and-seek with; and her sister, learning how to cook, who taught me recipes when I brought her ingredients.

A woman, afraid to go out in the forest where she used to play with fireflies, who missed them, and who was delighted when I caught and released some for her to see.

A painter, who had traveled the world and help me find some places I wanted to visit.

An elderly woman, who I'd met over 100 years ago, who was waiting to deliver a message from the past and to guide me to the future.

A stern guard, worried about his prized roosters having run off everywhere, who need help retrieving them.

A man, being blackmailed by evil from his past, killers who had murdered his wife (the two girls' mothers) and now threatened to do the same to the entire village.

That's just one small village, one of your most likely stops along the way, with some connections to the main quest. There are places that exist just to round up the world – from a sleepy fishing village to a town you help build up yourself – all just trying to cope with a swirling threat that literally looms over the horizon.

Because yes, there is an ultimate evil to defeat, Ganon's latest incarnation, this time coming back as a force of pure malice, the Calamity. Link is light fantasy's Eternal Champion, fated to fight Ganon over and over. You have to defeat him here one last time before Princess Zelda's own strength fails, and she can no longer hold him back.

It's a gargantuan, epic closing to a game made of moments large and small. When you get there, after all you have overcome, the final clash feels like the crowning achievement of everything that happened; a blow struck for everyone you have met. You haven't just toppled a monster, stopping a calamity from expanding and removing a menace that has hung over the kingdom for a century. You have made all these people's lives better.

#zelda #breathofthewild #nintendo #games #fantasy

Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace in Lockout

Sometimes the thing you need is a fun, wise-cracking action movie.

Lockout is what you'd get if you lock Guy Pearce in a room for six months with a set of weights and tubs of protein shake, so he can prepare to play Snake Plissken by watching Die Hard and Last Action Hero over and over.

He plays CIA Operative Snow, caught in a double-cross where his friend gets killed. He refuses to cooperate with a Secret Service he doesn't trust. As a result, he is about to get sent to an orbital maximum security prison when (wouldn't you know it) a shit-show at the same jail ends up with the U.S. President's daughter as a hostage.

Wouldn't you know it, our smart-mouthed jackass gets an offer to rescue her, which he takes because a friend of his also happens to have ended up there.

Yeah, the writers locked themselves up only with Carpenter's Escape movies. But while it hews close to its inspiration, considering it a copycat would be a disservice to how much silly fun Lockout is. Hell, it's a better movie than Escape from L.A. and a significant improvement on how you'd adapt Plissken's first outing to recent times. Sorry, John.

You know the rest. Colorful psychos run amok. Snow gets on the station to chew bubblegum and kick ass (but he's... you know). He cracks wise. He gets in trouble. He blows up things and thugs. He banters with his charge, who has a mind of her own about what they should be doing. He works to prove his innocence. Assholes act like assholes throughout and get their comeuppance later.

Anything science-related makes zero sense, because we wouldn't want to distract from the cinematic goofiness. Don't worry about it – there are about 15 seconds of that in the movie, total.

Lockout is the kind of movie where you can tell almost everything you need to know about it in the first 90 seconds. If the way they introduce Snow doesn't at least put a smile on your face, move on. If it makes you cackle, then grab a beer, pour some mixed nuts on a plate, and plonk yourself down for 90 minutes of quips and action.

#lockout #guypearce #snakeplissken #action

Malcom Murray, Doryan Gray, Evelyn Ives, Victor Frankenstein, Ethan Chandler from Penny Dreadful

There are things that should be better, that I want to be better. When they aren't, I get mad in a way I wouldn't if forced to sit through a Michael Bay movie.

I got mad at Penny Dreadful's second season when I watched it, almost five years ago. I foamed at the mouth at the wasted opportunities, flipped an entertainment table at it, and swore I was done with it for good.

I couldn't stay away.

I don't like to admit it, but I like style. Not over substance, but style will keep me digging, rooting through a show, hoping the beautiful shapes inform some sort of actual function.

Penny Dreadful shimmered, promised to be a dark, sensual, gory counterpart to Zelazny's A Night On the Lonesome October.

I could watch this just because of Eva Green, if we're being honest. I'd listen to her read an entire George Lucas script (don't judge me). But the theme was aimed squarely at me, and I am a difficult target to even spot. The fact that I stood there, waiting for it to hit me, and yet it managed to miss made it all the more irksome, which I took as a personal insult.

So I gave it another shot, to finish the story, a good three years after the series itself wrapped. Hoping.

I am not mad. I just disappointed.

There is so much good stuff in it and they never develop it. It's all disjointed, the great mixed in with the mediocre and the annoying.

Timothy Dalton brings a gusto that he never brought to Bond. He looks more alive here than he ever has since Prince Barin. He could carry an entire swashbuckling series by himself, his Malcom Murray being a better aged Allan Quatermain than Sean Connery was.

Then there are Brona Croft – Frankenstein's would-be bride – and Dorian Gray. I was done with their shtick by the end of the second season. Wasting this much time on them during what the writers should have known was their last outing is just insulting. At least Dorian looks as annoyed with Croft's speechifying, and Croft at Gray's ineffectualness, as I was with their whole affair.

But we have Rory Kinnear as John Clare, Frankenstein's original creature, his mixture of concerned softness and violence, and the only character in the series with an actual arc. He starts sensitive but full of hate. He covets the bride that the source material forces upon the story. But Clare develops into his own person. He evolves, has an honest relationship with Vanessa. At the end, he even rejects the idea of inflicting his fate upon another, refusing to sacrifice one to make another happy. He develops better than his creator, since Frankenstein ends the series exactly the way he started it, having learned nothing. Yet the story always keeps Clare to the side, never giving him enough time (or even letting him appear on group scenes), so they can waste it on Western antics.

Don't get me started on Wes Studi. The series decides the most progressive thing to do is to bring in a Magical Apache and, apparently unaware of the hilarity of echoing Studi's turn as The Sphinx in Mystery Men, have him sometimes speak in anti-metabole. He is an unnecessary connection to Ethan Chandler (née Talbot), thrown in as yet another attempt to hammer in Chandler's mystical destiny.

My dear Mr. Talbot, I am so sorry that they saddled you with the whole Lupus Dei thing. In Latin it sounds like a teenager's idea of a religious sect, and in English, the Wolf of God gets stupider every time someone utters it.

And then there is Eva Green, who is still a delight, when they let her, but gets the worst dialogue of the entire series here, not to mention being thoroughly stripped of agency. The writing shorts all characters, in the end, but at least most of them don't end up spending good chunks of each season locked in an empty room, haggard and wearing rags, rambling.

You can tell there were some feeble attempts at retooling the cast, a Hail Mary in case it didn't get canceled. The delicate Ferdinand Lyle gets on a bus to Egypt, replaced by Catriona Hartdegen, Action Thanatologist, who at least might not end up shoved in a refrigerator like Miss Ives. Studi's Kaetenay is the new Sembene, but one there to cause friction with Chandler. Henry Jekyll is out and about.

Then it ends. There is no finality, no sense that anybody knows where this could have gone, no hard choices made. It could have explored the social tension between genders, classes, lovers, leading to engrossing outcomes. Instead, every conflict is resolved using a simplified version of fuck-marry-kill, trivial to figure out, because nobody here marries.

#pennydreadful #evagreen #tvseries #timothydalton #rorykinnear #joshhartnett #rogerzelazny

Headshot for Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Joker has very little to say but will go on and on and on about it.

You know what it's supposed to be about, right? It's an origin story for the Batman villain Joker. In an attempt to distance itself from the recent tire fire of DC movies, director Todd Phillips chose to ape a late 70s style (down to title cards). Unsure if that would do the job, he then went ahead and namechecked a few Scorsese movies while promoting it. It's like Taxi Driver! No, King of Comedy! Look, De Niro is in it as an asshole talk show host!

But it's topical, too! Arthur Fleck – Joker's original identity here – got nothing but shorts sticks. He is poor. He needs to care for his mother based on his irregular income. He has mental health issues. They live in a city that is cutting back on social programs and which is crawling with entitled rich.

You don't need to be a movie plot taxonomist to know what the rest of the movie is going to be about. Our lack of empathy created Joker. He is a monster, but one we created ourselves, blowback for America's disregard for those most in need, the inevitable result of its depraved cannibalization of the bottom 99%. If only Batman's dad had put his money into helping society instead of his political campaign, maybe Bruce Wayne would be a regular spoiled rich kid instead of a brooding superhero.

On the nose enough? No? Then let's make Joker's war cry you get what you deserve!

It's a cheap ploy to appeal to people who wouldn't watch superhero comics, engineered to induce knee-jerk sympathy for a character with zero redeeming qualities. Nevermind that Fleck's first murder spree happened before an uncaring system cut off his medicare. Those guys were asshole venture capitalists; they had a few .38 rounds coming, right?

It has one thing going for it: Joaquin Phoenix commits to the character with absolute dedication, giving a performance that is beyond what the material deserves. Some of it comes from the Christian Bale school of “body transformation as characterization.” The way Fleck retreats into his own space when he isn't acting on his clown persona, the awful awkwardness when he believes he is faking smoothness, the pained expression when laughing... that's all Phoenix. He doesn't manage to sell us on the movie's own pretensions of depth, but damn if he doesn't try.

#joker #joaquinphoenix #dccomics #toddphillips #christianbale

TV Shows have become more efficient. It used to take a whole 24 episodes for a series to ruin a promising concept or first season – now they can do it in only 8.

This will likely contain spoilers for both seasons of Altered Carbon. Nothing major from season 1, if you've read the book, but I won't hold back on the new material from season 2.

Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon, Season 1

The first season of Altered Carbon was an enjoyable and (mostly) faithful adaptation of Richard Morgan's original novel. It's the future, and humans are now able to download their consciousness to new bodies when their current one dies (or, if you're rich, whenever you want). Kovacs, a U.N. super-soldier turned mercenary, finds himself back in a new body after 200 years, at the behest of a tera-rich who wants Kovacs to solve a locked-room mystery.

It has a few interesting ideas in it, with the “sleeving” concept fully integrated into the world and used to power both its central mystery and the characters' solutions. It never connected with me, though. I remember the impression the book caused more than the specifics. Kovacs felt out of place in the wrong way: a Mary Sue mixture of hardboiled noir P.I. and killing machine, a bad-ass disconnected from the events. There was no particular reason for him to do anything, other than the gazillionaire who brought him back had a gun to his head.

The series switched a few things around. What the book called the Envoys are now the Protectorate. The U.N. is never mentioned, but the Protectorate rules the worlds with a kevlar-wrapped mag-rail-gripping fist. Kovacs is still an Envoy – and the last of them, at that, for people to repeat in awe – but they were instead a group of rebels fighting the Protectorate for a reason that the show doesn't initially specifies.

Same bad-ass, then, only turning the rogue factor up to 11.

One of its core changes, though, helped anchor Takeshi Kovacs in the new world. In taking a background character and making her Kovacs' sister, it added a complicating motivation for a protagonist who had none. It made some narrative paths more evident as a potential resolution, while also introducing questions about how Kovacs might act. It made him less transparent.

A minor tweak, probably there to give them an excuse to extend the series with a few background episodes, but one that worked.

Must have worked for audiences, too, because there is a new season built entirely on new material. It's two episodes shorter than the first season's ten, and just as well, as it has barely anything interesting to say.

Anthony Mackie as Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon, Season 2

They still put a couple nice touches in the universe, using the sleeve concept to allow themselves some tricks with cast reuse. This acts both as a nice callback to the first season and to showcase things that the stack technology makes possible.

Overall, though? The writing got sloppy, fast.

Characters act (and rant!) about knowledge that viewers have, but that the same characters haven't acquired yet. Villains would twirl their mustache as they tie a girl's stack to the train tracks if they could – how they go about their plans is not only baroque but bordering on silly. And, in the usual science fiction sin, the series brings back Gods and their wrath as a way to justify some magical choices.

When it writes itself into a corner, the series shrugs and introduces new tech possibilities without a thought about how they affect the world at large (say, being able to wirelessly copy someone's stack without their knowing). Worse, it uses these tools to retroactively explain things that happened in the last season, meaning these aren't new developments but have been available for hundreds of years... yet only a few characters know how to use them, realize it when convenient, had never thought of doing it before, and are able to do it unbeknownst to anyone else.

Any advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from a plot device.

Worse, these plot devices are used to cheapen several character choices and curtail more interesting narrative paths. Would Kovacs develop as the same person without Quell dying? What would he be without survivor's guilt? Who cares, when we can have our cake and eat it too?

Which is all an elaborate way of saying that the first season is entertaining, and its changes to the book's background preserve its code. In contrast, the second is not even a passable waste of time. If the writers were going to pull a deus ex machina, the very least they could do was not have it literally be a bloody god in the goddammed machine.

#tvseries #scifi #alteredcarbon #richardkmoran #joelkinnaman #anthonymackie

Jessica Chastain on the poster for Miss Sloane

(Contains spoilers for Miss Sloane. Just as well, because I can't recommend it)

There are hacks to writing smart characters that make them all look and sound the same. You write their lines shorter, faster, have other characters speak slower or act baffled every so often, have them ask questions that the lead then has to explain. If you are not sure that'll do the trick, then you make the character keep others in the dark, hide information from the audience, and pull out a surprise every few minutes.

Stick to that, and they won't end up coming across as smart – they'll be a smart-mouthed asshole.

Unfortunately for us as viewers, Miss Sloane goes down that exact path. It comes across as wanting to be Aaron Sorkin, without his flair for archetypes or percussive dialogue. It's all a long set up for the ending, and that ending is a kamikaze run on a senator who the movie introduces as a gloating, crusty antagonist, yet later becomes clear is partly another victim of the situation. Sloane's self-righteous takedown makes no sense, and doesn't even reach fridge-logic status: the credits haven't even gotten started when you are already feeling sorry for the target of her suicidal run.

Worse, her ultimate plan was setting in motion the thing that nearly derailed her team's original goal of getting a bill passed... and she enacts it just at the time that they are winning. It is her self-inflicted melodrama that almost kills the bill they are pushing for, not her opponents. That the movie (and character) think we should celebrate her, just because her plan is to cause self-harm and then return things to a status quo, is baffling.

This is not someone righting the wrongs of her past with one last push. This is someone whose entire, self-contained plan starts with damaging their own cause. Nevermind the character: the writer thought that a scheme where Sloane's entire clever plan, her trump card, ends up with them being back to where they started before she enacted it in the third act, was a brilliant reveal.

In a movie this perfunctorily written, you could try and salvage the performances. We almost get that in John Lithgow as Senator Sperling, when he's being half coerced and half bribed into attacking Sloane. His reluctance does more to humanize the senator in one scene than Jessica Chastain does to her character in the entire movie, because Chastain... Chastain has one character, and by god, she's going to play it over and over. Her Business Lady Macbeth in A Most Violent Year was a better use of her limited range.

Miss Sloane is the kind of movie where the character has to keep its one-upmanship with its opponents throughout the film, so they can continue surprising you with their cleverness. If done well (The Usual Suspects), things fit perfectly at the end. If not, the movie ends up pulling dirty tricks and non-sequiturs to be able to get one last gotcha!, and the audience becomes just another opponent.

#misssloane #jessicachastain #johnlithgow #johnmadden #drama #smartass #movies

Poster for I don't feel at home in this world anymore

Hollywood gets a lot of flack for giving more chances to new male talent than to women. Accurate as that is, it forgets how you not only need to be male – you need to be male, young, and handsome. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck write themselves a feel-good movie and get Oscars and a career. If you give a remarkable performance but are unremarkable looking... god help you. You're starting off in debt and will need to work your way up to where anyone cuter starts.

Macon Blair had been acting for 14 years before he got the perfect vehicle in Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin. I'm not going to rehash what I wrote about it – you can read my original comment from four years ago. It should have propelled him to... well... working status, at least. But he hits the trifecta: he is plain, pudgy, and understates his performances.

Nevermind that, though. Plain-looking folks need to take matters in their own hands and turn to writing and directing.

Small Crimes, the first of his scripts I saw, was a modern go-fuck-yourself noir aiming for the same naturalistic style of Blue Ruin. His second script, I don't feel at home in this world anymore, is also the first movie he directs himself, and it's a different threat: Blair shows he is capable of more than just moody, gloomy, tortured souls. It still has enough self-destructive behavior to go around. He plays it for chuckles this time, with the movie's world populated entirely by people who have no idea how silly they are.

Melanie Lynskey plays Ruth, who you could place anywhere between junior accounting staff or nursing home assistant, the latter being her actual profession here. It feels like everyone around her is an unsympathetic, unthinking, uncaring jerk. They block her on the street with their huge, honking, fume-spewing trucks; they cut across her in the supermarket; they leave dog shit in her yard – right in front of the “no dog poo” sign.

When someone breaks into her house and steals her medication, her laptop and the silver her grandmother left her, Ruth takes it with resignation – it's just another sign that everyone is terrible to each other. When the cops seem uninterested in her case, she mostly mutters while giving them the benefit of the doubt. But when she finds a clue and the police refuse to send a team to deal with it (because of silly reasons like lacking a search warrant), Ruth teams up with Tom, goes off her meds and on wonky a journey of mild self-empowerment.

Oh yeah, Tom. Elijah Wood is Tom, every nerdy metalhead you've ever encountered, complete with nunchakus and Saxon t-shirts. Tom... I don't know what Tom does for a living. I don't think anybody does. He is professionally self-unaware. Tom is sidekick, would-be love interest, comic relief, and the cause of at least one of the problems plaguing Ruth.

No spoilers. They get that out of the way at their first meeting. As Ruth goes into what is less a rampage and more a reluctant, slow-motion hissy-fit, Tom is a reminder that not everyone who does something that pisses you off is doing it on purpose – some are just unaware. Once she wigs out, though, she doesn't think about that anymore. There are wrongs to be righted.

The movie tries to remind her, but doesn't wag the finger at her as she disregards all the warnings and goes through her amateurish sleuthing and micro-retributions. It sits with us, watching them bumble around, chuckling at them. It prods them into mishaps that start escalating, pushing back with consequences. First, they escape unscathed by sheer luck, but realize neither how lucky they got nor how they look to the other side. Then someone gets a finger snapped, but painkillers help. Then things get serious when a different set of idiots (only more mean-spirited ones) get more actively involved, and she realizes reality doesn't care if you are kinda, mostly, not entirely wrong.

I realize that's not sounding funny enough. It is, if you derive your humor out of escalating facepalms and sudden violence. But it's a movie where you're mostly laughing at the characters, not with them. There are a lot of laughs in it, but you need to be the kind of person who doesn't mind feeling a bit like an asshole.

#maconblair #netflix #comedy #melanielynskey #elijahwood